Rebecca Ferguson: Soul Catcher
Known internationally for her authentically-soulful, brooding vocals that originally saw her finish runner-up in the 2010 series of high-profile UK TV talent show “The X-Factor”, 27-year-old Liverpool-born-and-raised singer/songwriter Rebecca Ferguson this month releases her highly-anticipated second album “Freedom”. Which, as the follow-up to her 2011-released million-selling debut LP “Heaven”, is currently being pioneered by its powerfully-pounding, punchy lead-off single “I Hope”.
Interestingly, with “Freedom” containing all new material (all once again impressively co-written by Rebecca herself) the soulful 12-track set finds Ferguson this time hooking-up with new production/songwriting collaborators like Jarrad Rogers (with whom she penned five songs) and Toby Gad (of Fergie and Beyonce fame), in addition to long-time collaborator Eg White. An experimental move which results in the album’s emotive musical moods ranging from the haunting deep soul balladry of “Fake Smile” and the John Legend-featuring, string-laden “Bridges” to the thudding drums and surging production of “My Best” and celebratory, beat-heavy “Beautiful Design”.
All of which in turn makes for a solid follow-up to qualified-legal-secretary Rebecca’s acclaimed aforementioned debut album “Heaven”. Which in addition to its Double-Platinum status in the UK (spurred on by the success of its acoustic-guitar-accompanied Top Ten single “Nothing’s Real But Love”) also went on to attain bona fide global chart success, including a highly impressive Top Three placing in the US R&B chart - all ultimately resulting in prestigious nominations in both the MTV Europe and Soul Train Music Awards.
… Which brings us neatly back to autumn 2013. As, despite her raw-but-stunning first audition on “X-Factor” singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” three years ago revealing Rebecca as the painfully shy, woefully under-confident mother-of-two she was at the time, today it’s nevertheless a bubbly and chatty - yet still likeably-humble and “normal” - Ms. Ferguson who meets up with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis for lunchtime drinks at Sony Music UK’s buzzing Kensington HQ. Where she happily discusses - in soft-spoken, still-instantly-recognisable Liverpudlian tones - her highly-anticipated new album and single; her hook-up with US contemporary soul superstar John Legend; plus the highs and lows of her first two years in the limelight as in international singing sensation.
PETE: Let’s start by discussing the title of your new album “Freedom” and the way it fits in with the overall lyrical theme
REBECCA: “My reason for calling it “Freedom” was because the whole album is really about EMPOWERMENT, about shaking off the old self and being free of OPPRESSION. You know, because I’d kind of gone through quite a strange year where I’d attracted a lot of odd people that literally just wanted to use me, a lot of the album became about fighting against that and finally breaking away from those characters and being free to be who you ARE… So yeah, in that way it’s really like a fight-back album with me expressing what I was going through at the time and basically saying ‘Don’t let anyone hold you DOWN’. I basically wanted to create a record that, when you’re feeling low and you’re feeling like the world is against you, you can put on and it just gives you that bit of strength to carry on with your day and not give UP.”
PETE: Musically overall I’d say there’s a definite harder, more beats-driven edge to the music this time round…
REBECCA: “Well just like on “Heaven”, with this album I was working with some brilliant PRODUCERS. And so, because of the way I was feeling while we were recording, I think they realised that the vibe this time around did need to have a harder EDGE to it - which is why the beats are so PROMINENT. Like when we were working on “My Freedom” for example, I remember saying to Eg (White) ‘Imagine you’re in a car driving and the bass is literally just HITTING you!’... You know, I wanted the beat and just the overall feel to be like really strong and really cutthroat.”
PETE: A definite highlight of “Freedom” is of course your duet with US contemporary soul superstar John Legend, the hauntingly emotive ballad “Bridges”…
REBECCA: “Yeah, that basically all began with somebody from the label getting in touch and saying ‘We’ve got this John Legend track he’s written with Steve Booker that we think would be brilliant with your voice on’. And though - because I don’t often like to collaborate or sing other people’s songs - at first I wasn’t sure, once I heard it I was like ‘Yeah, I could genuinely ADD something to this’... So I went to the studio, asked Steve what the core of the song was about... And then once he explained to me it was about two people at the end of a relationship, I literally just went in the booth and sang my HEART out! You know, I literally did put myself in the situation of that person in the SONG! Then once I’d done my part, they sent it to John who straightaway was like ‘Yep that’s great’, he sent it back… And then from there we added a string section - which I got involved with on the creative side - and that was IT! The track was DONE!... And speaking from a personal viewpoint, I’ve got to say that for me to get that approval from someone like John - who I know has a lot of say in his music and is established enough to not HAVE to say ‘Oh go on, I’ll let this person sing on my track’ - was a really, really great THING.”
PETE: So what’s the background to the album’s powerfully-pounding lead-off single “I Hope”?
REBECCA: “Well again, “I Hope” is about people that had hurt me and that had really tested me to the point where I really, really hated them and there’s no other way to EXPRESS that. Like I really did loathe these people in a way I’d never felt towards ANYONE before - to the point where I was becoming not a nice PERSON. But then once I started realising that, I was like ‘Wait a minute, what am I DOING?’... And I actually ended up going to CHURCH - which is something I don’t often do, though I was brought up to be religious - and while I was there picking up a booklet that was all about FORGIVENESS. Then after that from there I went on to Jarrad Rogers’ studio, and I basically just turned to him and said ‘You know, this has gone too FAR. I need to let this GO. I need forgive them for what they’ve done to me and I need to completely let myself be FREE, because if I don’t it’s gonna eat me up!’… So I was like ‘Put me on the MIC!’ - and as soon as he did I immediately came out with the lyrics ‘I hope life treats you good; I hope that she is KIND’. Which was something that literally came from a very, very real place inside me of just forgiving the enemy and saying ‘Life’s too short, I really wish you WELL’… So yeah, that’s actually the true story of how that song came ABOUT.”
PETE: You’ve been described as “fiercely proud of her working-class Liverpool roots”! So what was your early upbringing - in a one-parent-household with three brothers and sisters - like, and how did you first become interested in music?
REBECCA: “The actual area I lived in wasn’t too bad, it was more that we didn’t have much. You know, with my mum not being well when I was growing up, it was all quite chaotic and I was pretty much pushed from pillar to post really. And so from an early age I kinda got it in my head that I could escape from my life at home by becoming a SINGER - which was the only thing I really CLUNG to through it all! You know, I’d literally just spend hours in my room constantly listening to records, writing songs... Basically I just got used to channelling all that pain, and the things I was going through, into MUSIC.”
PETE: With Liverpool having, over the decades, proven to be such a hotbed of musical talent, do you feel growing up in the city itself helps cultivate an interest in singing?
REBECCA: “Yeah, I do actually. I mean, in Liverpool everybody wants to be a singer, a dancer, a footballer, a wag... You know, there’s a certain AMBITION in Liverpool - and music does play a big part IN that. Plus it’s also naturally a very TALENTED city. Which I think - with Liverpool having been a big port - may be down to all the different CULTURAL influences there. I mean, I myself started singing seriously as early as 15! I took a job in a clothes shop, got paid £20 a day - and then used that money to pay for singing lessons in a private MUSIC school! So even at that age I was thinking to myself ‘Right, I need to start training myself for this dream’. Then, as I got a bit older, I started to pay for my own recording sessions with the money I was earning - and from there I started AUDITIONING for different things... And I do think part of that early ambition in me was due to the environment of the city I was growing UP in.”
The single “I Hope” and album “Freedom” are both out now through RCA
To read more from this fascinating interview with Rebecca Ferguson, including her look back at her time as an X-Factor contestant and her own personal journey since being in the X-spotlight…get your copy of B&S magazine, available at all decent newsagents and magazine retailers now…you can also purchase your copy from our own online store and get it delivered to your door - just click on the link below.
Words PETE LEWIS